Part 2: Self-Help Legal Services: Helpful or Harmful?

Numerous online businesses have emerged in recent years that offer legal forms and information to enable consumers to create their own legal documents and perform many legal related services without the need for an attorney. The impact on a local level is that the number of pro se litigants (those representing themselves) has increased exponentially in Buncombe County over the past few years. The online and self-help legal service industry has been fueled by consumers who are attracted to the convenience and cost savings these businesses provide. However, as the use of the self-help legal service industry has grown in popularity, problems have surfaced that suggest the possibility of harm to consumers may significantly outweigh the benefits. Attorneys are increasingly dealing with legal issues that are the result of consumers trying to handle their own legal matters using forms and information they have obtained over the Internet. In the end consumers may pay an attorney more in legal fees to try to correct or minimize damage from the self-help efforts than if they had paid an attorney to assist them to begin with.

Attorneys across North Carolina have become concerned about the risk of harm to consumers that may result from do-it-yourself legal forms and publications, as well as certain practices of online legal service providers. Some of the more advanced online legal service providers use “decision trees” and other algorithms to create custom made legal documents and provide related information and guidance that may place these businesses in violation of North Carolina’s prohibition against the unauthorized practice of law. The harm to the public of untrained professionals providing legal advice and information is significant. LegalZoom, a popular supplier of online legal forms and services, has lobbied for proposed legislation that would redefine the unauthorized practice of law in North Carolina.

LegalZoom also filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina State Bar to prevent the State Bar from resisting its efforts.

Attorney Howard Gum, a family law specialist at Gum, Hillier, and McCroskey, P. A. and the State Bar Councilor for the 28th Judicial District Bar, provided a recent article to the 28th Judicial District Bar newsletter addressing efforts made by the North Carolina State Bar and the North Carolina Bar Association to respond to the proposed legislation and protect members of the public from the unauthorized practice of law. For a link to the article, click here.

There is no substitute for the knowledge and experience of a licensed attorney; however, if you are going to use self-help resources, such as those available on the Internet, we recommend that (1) you make sure you are using a reliable source, (2) the information is up-to-date, and (3) it conforms to the applicable rules and laws of your state. Local, state, and federal government websites are typically the best sources for providing up-to-date and reliable information.

This article is for information purposes only and is not to be considered or substituted as legal advice. The information in this article is based on North Carolina state laws in effect at the time of posting.

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